The big picture: science to law

18 January 2017

Like many girls, Dr Nicolette Chan thought she would grow up to be a doctor. As the courses became more specialised during her undergraduate degree at Hong Kong University, Chan found herself gravitating towards more biotech-related subjects.

“I wanted to learn something that could be applied in many different directions, and I started considering medical research rather than becoming a doctor as a way to benefit more people rather than just one at a time,” she explains. 

This idea has defined Chan’s rather unusual career as she eventually got her doctorate and a white lab coat, only to exchange them for a corporate lawyer’s suits.

Rethinking research

During her PhD work at the University of Cambridge’s prestigious MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Chan’s research focused on crafting therapeutic antibodies targeting protein molecules contributing to human leukemia. 

In researching a mimicked process of leukemia in mouse models, she followed the chromosomal translocation chain’s impact, finding that if two different chromosomes in mouse genomes were linked together, the mouse naturally developed leukemia at a certain point. 

DNA material from the mice was extracted to analyse the numerous genetic changes had occurred, and tested to determine what else would change if the genes did. This was used to develop antibodies that specifically targeted the proteins produced by the genetic change.

Chan stayed on for several postdoctoral research positions in developmental biology, cancer biology, and transplantation biology, but the urge to do something different grew. 

“I could really study anything related to biology—and I did!—because my training wasn’t confined to just cancer, and I always managed to find interesting questions. There was a lot I loved about science, and I wanted to contribute in some way to reciprocate the support I’d received during my studies,” she stresses. 

Alongside the research, Chan also taught undergraduate biology courses as part of her duties as a Robinson College fellow, and interacting with young, inquisitive minds was an enjoyable contrast to the solitude of the lab. 

Many of the students she taught would go off into various jobs and were markedly different when they came to visit; Chan remembers thinking wistfully of the difference between academic research and the ‘real world’ and questioning whether she was lacking in some needed perspective. 

At the same time, the direction of science at the time was not suited for Chan’s own interests. “I’m more of a big picture person, and I tried to ensure that my research reflected that, whereas the priorities then were on drilling ever deeper down into the minutiae,” Chan says. “It’s like painting: some start with the details, others with the background, but there has to be a balance between broad strokes and detail. The way molecular biology projects were being identified didn’t have enough of this balance to keep my motivation going.”

Science to law

It would have been easy to switch into a job in another science-based industry, but Chan decided instead to apply for a an accelerated program in law. 

Almost a decade older than the usual law student, her choice was often met with exclamations on the risk. 

“I’ve always had a latent interest in law, and I wanted to do something equally if not more intellectually challenging than science. What I do defines me, and it wasn’t wrong to want to be fulfilled,” she says. 

Many of her prospective employers agreed that it was a brave move, and she went on to do her two year traineeship at Slaughter and May, a renowned corporate law firm.

It’s like painting: some start with the details, others with the background, but there has to be a balance between broad strokes and detail.

The firm provides legal services in commercial law, IPOs, corporate governance, regulatory licensing, loans, and more. Chan specialises in financing, for example helping to find the money for Company A to buy Company B through private equity, investment, and loans. 

The skillset she is developing in negotiating the array of contracts, details, and laws is also transferable to other forms of corporate law, and Chan says working in teams where everyone brings different specialisations and ideas is one of the best parts of the job. 

“You still have to do mundane jobs,” she laughs, “But there’s no doubt that I made the right choice in moving to law. You start with the big picture, and the details of each case and transaction become more interesting with that goal in mind.” With more biotech, pharmaceutical, and engineering companies coming up as big names in the corporate sphere, Chan’s experience has proved useful several times. 

Clients feel their interests are being better represented with someone who can understand what their product is, and bridging the gap between law, business, and science happens more seamlessly. This can be particularly important when working with more loose-thinking academics in industry, which is driven by the bottom line rather than by just the beauty of scientific principle.

Chan says she would never rule out the possibility of returning to science, but notes that science has sped up in recent years. 

She has enjoyed being part of the audience, and seeing more links being made between the rapid advancements in labs to the bigger picture. “Even ten years ago, medical science was more holistic, but now breakthroughs hinge on genetics and science is becoming more accessible and more commercialised. Now the molecular detail gives the public more certainty,” she points out, referencing her doctor’s offer of an expensive prenatal DNA sequencing test.

More young academics are making the transition into industry and even those with scientific training cross over to other fields as Chan has. “It’s more about the person, and our differences really do set us apart. I hope younger scholars explore the many possibilities that are open to them, in their fields or in others, and forge their own paths without fear.” 

Dr Nicolette Chan received her PhD in molecular biology at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), University of Cambridge. During her doctorate studies, she was also awarded the Cambridge University Lundgren Research Award and a MRC studentship. She received a Croucher Foundation scholarship in 2002. Chan is currently an associate at Slaughter and May.

To view Chan's personal Croucher profile, please click here.